Monday, January 30, 2012

Musical Monday - Frogger: The Frogger Musical by Paul & Storm

Formerly members of the a capella group Da Vinci's Notebook, Paul & Storm fall into the category of what I call "geek by proxy", in that they are well-loved by the geek crowd, but very few of their songs are explicitly geek related. They frequently tour with Jonathan Coulton, and sing backup on a few of his songs when they do, which has exposed them to his nerdy cadre of fans and put them in front of crowds at venues like PAX and DragonCon.

Paul & Storm have a lot of very funny songs: Opening Band, Cruel, Cruel Moon, Nugget Man, and so on. But most of them are more generic funny songs than they are geek-oriented funny songs. However, they do have some geek material, and one of my favorites is their homage to musical theater and classic video games: Frogger: The Frogger Musical. This video is from their performance at JoCo Cruise Crazy. As a side note: The woman Paul serenades in the second portion of the song is his wife, which makes that sequence even more adorable.

Previous Musical Monday: Godzilla by The Doubleclicks
Subsequent Musical Monday: Best Super Bowl Song Ever! by Greg Benson, Jonathan Coulton, and Paul & Storm

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review - Land of Black Gold by Hergé

Short review: Cars begin exploding and the mystery leads Tintin to Arabia. Captain Haddock vanishes for most of the book but shows up just in time.

Lots of cars explode
A missing Captain Haddock
Silly detectives

Long review: The Land of Black Gold is an oddly disjointed book. Begun before World War II and shelved for the duration of Belgium's occupation the story pulled out of mothballs and completed after the Axis defeat. The result is a schizophrenic book that is basically two disparate halves mashed together to form one strange story involving exploding cars, Middle-Eastern unrest, scheming returning villains, and a weird recurring gag resulting from a mixed up aspirin bottle. In a sense, this is the last of the pre-War Tintin stories, even though it was half-written and published after the conflict was over, and after the switch to more pulpy adventure of the previous four books, it feels odd to return to the more political tone that was set up in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review). Despite this, the fairly linear first half of the story melds reasonably well with the more character driven second half, resulting in a strange but readable adventure.

The most noticeable thing about the book is the paucity of supporting characters in the first half. Because Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus were War-era creations, they don't appear in the opening portion of the book other than a single panel inserted into the story in which Haddock telephones Tintin to tell him that he has been activated by the Admiralty and has to report to his ship. Two supporting characters who do show up early are the detectives Thompson and Thomson, who make their appearance in the first panel getting fuel from a petrol station. In this sequence the pair behave like jerks, which makes me wonder if Hergé had intended to move them from being merely bumbling sticklers for the law to being somewhat insufferable elitists as a way of using his then existing roster of regulars in a more expansive way. This apparent elitism never rears its head again, possibly because when Hergé got back to working on the book, he had established the cadre of now-familiar characters surrounding his hero and no longer felt the need to take his comic relief in this direction - indeed in the second half of the story Thompson and Thomson reach truly absurd heights due to an innocent mishap.

Having gotten their tiny dose of gasoline, Thompson and Thomson stumble into the plot of the book when their car blows up. It turns out that cars start blowing up with regularity, as does Thompson's cigarette lighter. While consulting Tintin, the detectives have a fit of competence and identify the petrol as the source of the problem. But they then follow up this insight by asserting that it is obvious to them that the roadside assistance company "Autocart" must be behind the epidemic of exploding cars and so they charge off into a tangent where they get employed by the company and incompetently investigate while wrecking tow trucks and getting themselves into trouble (and once again the amazingly fragile nature of tires in the Tintin universe comes in to play). In the mean time, Tintin sets out to discuss the matter with the managing director of the oil company Spedol, soon securing a position as radio operator on the tanker the Speedol Star in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. I suppose Tintin could plausibly get an interview with a high ranking oil executive based on his alleged job as a journalist, but one wonders why the Speedol executive arranges for Tintin to investigate the problem rather than, say hiring a professional investigator. Throughout this section of the book, there is a constant background drumbeat of impending war, an element of the story that was probably at least partially responsible for Hergé shelving it when actual war broke out.

Before too long, Tintin is on the trail of the conspirators and on his way to the city of Khemikhal, but not before they frame him as a gun runner and frame Thompson and Thomson as opium smugglers. But before Tintin can be taken to jail, he is saved by a case of mistaken identity by the rebel sheikh Bab El Ehr. (Yes, that name, like most of the names in the series, is a bad pun, and a fairly insulting one to boot). The sheikh is expecting an arms shipment and rescues Tintin, but is somewhat understandably annoyed when it turns out that Tintin is not, in fact, an arms dealer. Once Thompson and Thomson clear their names, they learn that there is a substantial reward for catching Bab El Ehr and they set out into the desert in a jeep to find him, setting up a series of gags involving two incompetent nitwits wandering the desert. Tintin is dragged into the desert by Bab El Ehr and is then abandoned. This allows Tintin to wander the desert to just the right location to find the saboteurs who have been tainting the petrol supply hard at work.

This little bit of serendipity leads Tintin to the ringleader of the villains who turns out to be an old enemy last seen in The Black Island (read review) who has apparently switched from counterfeiting to fomenting war. The fact that the villain turns out to be German may be another reason that Hergé shelved the story during Belgium's occupation, and perhaps following the Nazi withdrawal continuing the story with Müller as the bad guy was a bit of minor revenge. After some twists and turns with Thompson and Thomson and a sand storm, Tintin finds himself talking to Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab and at this point Müller's plan becomes clear: to get the Emirate to switch from Arabex to a contract with his employer Skoil Petroleum, and since it seems that Bab El Ehr isn't going to be able to topple Ben Kalish, he kidnaps the Emir's son Abdullah.

At this point, the story turns into the now familiar "Tintin against the mobsters" format as Tintin convinces Ben Kalish to let him try to track down where Müller has taken the child. Showing his penchant for bringing back characters from earlier books, Hergé pulls Oliveira de Figueira out of the mothballs he had been sitting in since Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review) and sets him up as Tintin's avenue into the gangsters hideout. Because bringing recurring characters back into the series has become de rigeur, Hergé also works Bianca Castafiore into the book with a radio performance. In short order Tintin has infiltrated Müller's compound and finds that rescuing the prince is not quite as easy as he might have thought. It is difficult to determine exactly what part of the story was written before the War, and what part came after: Is it when Müller is introduced as the villain? When de Figueira shows up? Madame Castafiore? Perhaps, but then again all of them appeared in pre-War Tintin books. But what is certain is that when Captain Haddock shows up out of the blue to rescue Tintin from a locked basement without explanation, that the rest of the story is material that was produced after the conflict was over.

And this part of the book is more or less a fairly linear extended chase scene as Tintin and Haddock team up to try to apprehend Müller after he has run off with Abdullah. Once Haddock shows up the remainder of the book is divided between straightforward action and comic silliness. Tintin repeatedly asks Haddock what he has been doing and how he happened to find Tintin at just the right time, and Haddock repeatedly starts to answer only to be interrupted right before he can deliver his explanation. In the end, no explanation is forthcoming: Hergé just kicked the can down the road until the book ended and left it as an unexplained mystery, playing off Haddock's extended absences as a source of humor. Thompson and Thomson also give chase after Müller, in their own endearingly incompetent way, their elitist jerk tendencies of the opening pages now forgotten, and stumble into a joke that launches the humor surrounding them from a poke at bumbling incompetence to absurd heights of silliness - a joke which becomes part of the front cover of the book (and which is, incidentally, the only cover of the Tintin series on which Thompson and Thomson appear). Even the denouement of the chase after Müller takes on a humorous tone as he falls for one of Abdullah's pranks. Land of Black Gold, which started as an investigation-heavy mystery, ends up as a Keystone Kops style farce.

Stuck in the middle of the Tintin series, and sandwiched between two much better two-book adventures, Land of Black Gold is something of an odd duck out. Disjointed as a result of political circumstances that forced it onto the back burner for several years and six intervening books, this story has a very uneven quality. Even more so than most Tintin books Land of Black Gold cannot decide if it wants to be an adventure, a mystery, or a comedy, and as a result, it does a mediocre job at all of them. Having made Captain Haddock an integral part of the series during the war, Hergé had to figure out a way to wedge him into a story that was started before he even existed, and did so in a fairly clumsy manner that is used for nothing but cheap laughs. Despite all of these problems, the book is still a good read, and is actually made even more interesting because of all the flaws which were driven by outside world events and therefore give a reader a view into just how much impact the experiences of World War Two had upon the series. Although the story is messy at times, it is vintage pre-war Tintin mixed with War-era Tintin in a strange but fascinating soup that is both entertaining and revealing.

Previous book in the series: Prisoners of the Sun
Subsequent book in the series: Destination Moon

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Follow Friday - Billy Dee Williams Drinks Colt Forty-Five, You Better Not Run Out of It

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Book'd Out and Fiction Fervor.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Which book genre do you avoid at all costs and why?

I really want to say Christian fiction, but for some reason I have gotten several as review copies in the past couple years. In some cases, I knew they were Christian fiction. In others, they were marketed as fantasy fiction and the true nature of the book wasn't apparent until the book had arrived on my doorstep. When I actually do get around to publishing a review policy, it will probably include some text like this:

"I don't normally read Christian fiction. If you have a Christian fantasy or Christian science fiction book that you really want to send me to read and review, realize that the fact that your book contains a Christian theme isn't going to immunize it against criticism that the book has a flimsy plot, weak characters, offensive messages, or silly contrivances. I suggest reading some of my previous reviews of Christian speculative fiction here, here, and here, and consider whether you really want me to read and review your book."

Maybe that might dissuade them from trying to get their books into my reading queue by stealth, but I suspect not.

Other than that, there are very few genres I consciously try to avoid. I suppose romance would be a genre that I never read, but that's more because I regard the genre with apathy rather than abhorrence. But other than that, just about anything is fair game: mysteries, techno-thrillers, history, science, historical fiction, westerns, and of course, science fiction and fantasy. Just not with a Christian message please.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review - Prisoners of the Sun by Hergé

Short review: Tintin and Captain Haddock travel to South America to rescue the kidnapped Professor Calculus and end up in a hidden Inca temple. Not only does Tintin do no reporting, he agrees to never tell anyone what he finds.

Trailing kidnappers
Through mountains, snow, and jungle
Saved by an eclipse

Full review: The story begun in The Seven Crystal Balls (read review) continues in Prisoners of the Sun as Tintin and Captain Haddock fly to Peru hot on the heels of the kidnappers who abducted Professor Calculus in the previous book. Continuing the pattern established in the diptych of The Secret of the Unicorn (read review) and Red Rackham's Treasure (read review), the first book in this story consisted of mysteries and investigation while this, the second volume, is mostly pulp adventure in an exotic location. Unlike Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin and Captain Haddock very definitely face opposition in this book, in the form of what appears to be a pervasive conspiracy among the Indian inhabitants of Peru.

Because Tintin and Captain Haddock flew to Peru, they arrive ahead of the Pachacamac and wait for its arrival. While consulting with the local police, Tintin spots an Indian spying on them, a fact that the police dismiss. While they wait, Hergé takes the opportunity to set up a running gag involving Captain Haddock and spitting llamas that will recur throughout the rest of the book. Thompson and Thomson also show up (despite not previously being part of the investigation into Calculus' kidnapping) just in time to provide some humor involving bird poop and bowler hats.

Once the Pachacamac arrives, it becomes clear that it had been tipped off that Tintin and Captain Haddock were waiting for it, and the ship displays a quarantine flag. Tintin sneaks on board at night and finds Professor Calculus, but he also finds General Alcazar's old knife-throwing act assistance Chiquito, who informs Tintin that the good professor is under a death sentence for the sacrilege of wearing the golden bracelet he had put on as a lark in The Seven Crystal Balls. What is unclear at this point is why the conspirators felt the need to kidnap and drag Calculus halfway across the world to carry this sentence out rather than just bump him off right away. But they did kidnap him, and now it is up to Tintin and Haddock to get him out of the hands of his captors.

After getting a lead on the kidnappers, Tintin heads off after them and Haddock soon catches up with him, but not before sending Thompson and Thomson out of any active role in the story by sending them the wrong direction (which, all things considered, is probably the best thing to do when one is trying to solve a mystery). Unfortunately, they are foiled by what appears to be a Peruvian-wide conspiracy among the Incan inhabitants, whose actions range from merely trying to hinder Tintin and Haddock, to trying to kill them. Their luck changes when Tintin comes to the aid of a young Indian boy named Zorrino when he is bullied by a pair of Hispanic Peruvians. Tintin's most dominant personality trait - the willingness to always stick up for the little guy - comes in handy as it results in their getting a guide who claims to be able to lead them to Calculus, and a talisman handed to Tintin by a mysterious Indian who witnessed Tintin's bravery. In the world Hergé constructed for Tintin, bravery and honor are rewarded with good fortune, or at least good turns done in response. In this regard, Hergé's world is a much fairer and nicer place to live than ours.

With Zorrino guiding them, Tintin and Haddock set out on a Lost World type expedition into the heartland of Peru, traveling through rocky hills, snow covered mountains, and trackless jungle having numerous exciting encounters with the local fauna and overcoming the natural obstacles of the terrain until they finally stumble onto the hidden Incan Temple of the Sun. It turns out that the Incan Empire didn't get destroyed, it just went underground. One has to wonder though, if the modern day descendants of the Incans are this organized and this devoted, why wouldn't they dominate Peruvian politics? Setting that aside, the idea of a secret Incan nation does make for interesting adventure, although they do have an awfully draconian method of dealing with transgressions: everyone pretty much gets condemned to death right away. Tintin does get a minor bonus by being kind to Zorrino again and handing off the medallion he got from the mysterious stranger, but it is a kind of Pyrrhic bonus because it consists of being permitted to choose the hour that he, Captain Haddock, and Professor Calculus will be executed.

At this point, a little serendipity raises its head, and a scrap of newspaper the Captain saved to light a fire with in the snowy mountains turns out to contain a tidbit of information that gives Tintin what he needs to formulate a plan that he thinks will save their lives. The only problem is that the plan Tintin comes up with, and the scenes in which this plan is executed show that despite coming a long way since the days of Tintin in the Congo, Hergé still has a very patronizing attitude towards non-Europeans. Tintin's plan involves an upcoming solar eclipse and fooling the Incans into thinking that their Sun God was displeased with them and rejected their sacrifice by blotting out the sun. But the Incans in the story are devoted to a Sun God, and most cultures that place a high emphasis on celestial bodies also go to great pains to become very good at astronomy and predicting the movements of the heavens. It seems almost inconceivable that Incans who have gone to such great pains to maintain an ancient temple and a continent-wide network of loyal supporters would be clueless about an impending solar eclipse.

Whether it is believable or not, Tintin's plan works and everyone is saved. To provide some comic relief beyond Calculus' usual misunderstanding everything that is said to him, Hergé incorporates some Thompson and Thomson related humor as the two detectives get hold of Calculus' pendulum and try their hand at divining the location of the missing trio. Their efforts work about as well as can be expected, and the panels of them wandering the world intercut with the story of Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus provide some silly humor. Before too long Tintin has his captors eating out of the palm of his hand, and in an almost off-hand conversation has the temple priests agree to release the explorers who unearthed the mummy of Rascar Capac from the mystic imprisonment they had subjected them to. At this point, Tintin agrees not to reveal anything he has learned, eliminating any possibility of Tintin doing anything related to his supposed job, like writing a story. In return, Tintin is shown the hidden treasure of the Incas, a massive hoard of gold and gems. And this raises another question: given that the native Americans in the story are clearly poor and oppressed, one wonders why this vast wealth isn't being used to do something about this rather than sitting in a giant vault in the middle of nowhere. A secret empire that does nothing but hoard everything valuable doesn't seem like a secret empire that would command much loyalty.

With a story that could have been penned by Arthur Conan Doyle or Lester Dent, Prisoners of the Sun is a fun romp through South American adventure tinged with fantasy and just a little bit of European arrogance. The book also includes some very nice artwork, including beautiful larger panels such as the one depicting Tintin and Captain Haddock breaking into the Incan throne room. This was the last of the occupation era books, and marks the full development of Hergé as a spinner of pulp influenced action tales, a trait that served him well once his full creativity could be unleashed after the defeat of the Axis powers and liberation of Belgium. Like all of the two-part stories, this one is a high-water mark for the Tintin series, and a must read for a Tintin fan.

Previous book in the series: The Seven Crystal Balls
Subsequent book in the series: Land of Black Gold

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review - The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé

Short review: Seven explorers are stricken by a mysterious malady after bringing home the contents of an Incan emperor's tomb. Calculus is kidnapped, and Tintin and Captain Haddock must figure out the answer to both mysteries. Tintin does no reporting.

An Incan mummy
Seven men in a coma
Calculus kidnapped

Full review: After hitting on the successful formula of pulp action in the diptych of The Secret of the Unicorn (read review) and Red Rackham's Treasure (read review) that would both provide an enjoyable story and keep him out of trouble with both sides of World War II, Hergé decided to follow it up with another two-part story starting with The Seven Crystal Balls and leading to Prisoners of the Sun (read review). Where the story of recovering Red Rackham's hoard was a pirate adventure, the story of The Seven Crystal Balls is a pulp fantasy reminiscent of the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard. Of the three two-part Tintin stories, this is the weakest, but this is a minor criticism, as the two-part stories are the highlights of the Tintin series, and this is no exception. This is also the first Tintin story that contains full blown fantasy elements. Previous books, such as Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review), contained minor fantasy elements like fakirs from India who could stab themselves with knives and walk away unharmed, but this book is the first in which the fantasy elements are an integral part of the plot.

While not reporting on the news Tintin comes across a story in the paper that kicks off the plot of the book: an expedition returning from Peru with the ancient Incan mummy of Rascar Capc that they had found on their travels when a fellow train passenger ominously warns that disturbing Incan graves will lead to trouble. In a fit of awareness, Hergé has his unnamed kibbitzer wonder how Europeans would like explorers from South America or Africa coming over and digging up their kings without so much as a by-your-leave. Clearly Hergé's thinking had progressed considerably from the days when he had Tintin giving lessons to native Congolese about their Belgian fatherland and their benevolent King Leopold. And this is, I think, the most important point to be made about Hergé: he was willing to learn and change his positions on issues like colonialism. Even though his earlier books displayed some fairly odious views, Hergé's later works demonstrate a more empathetic position that more than makes up for them.

Having given the plot a quick kick start, the book turns to some comedy by showing how Haddock is trying to fit into his new life as a member of the landed gentry - falling off horses and going through an endless number of monocles. The book also makes a quick reference back to the opening when Calculus shows up with his pendulum and Haddock comments that the professor is convinced that his dowsing will lead him to a Saxon burial ground - just the sort of place that one expects a Bolivian expedition to Europe would not be welcomed. But before too long we are back on the trail of the plot, but in the roundabout way of Haddock's new found fascination with magic tricks, and a trip he takes to the theater with Tintin. While there to observe a magic act, they see a knife throwing act featuring none other than Tintin's old friend General Alcazar from The Broken Ear (read review), but now deposed and in disguise. Also part of the performance is Bianca Castafiore, last seen in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review). In response to her appearance, Tintin observes that she shows up everywhere: Syldavia, Borduria, and the Red Sea. But this makes no sense if Tintin is sequential - Tintin and Haddock don't see her in Borduria until The Calculus Affair (read review), five books after this one, and they won't find her in the Red Sea until The Red Sea Sharks (read review), the book after that. Not only that, when Tintin met Castafiore in Syldavia, it was in King Ottokar's Sceptre, before he had even met Captain Haddock (and as a result, contrary to what Tintin implies here, Haddock was not with him for that encounter). This is yet more evidence, along with the references to Marlinspike and Destination Moon (read review) from Cigars of the Pharaoh and numerous other examples, that the Tintin books take place in a weird universe in which everything is simultaneously in the future and in the past. And people who were never present for events were in fact present for them.

After filling some space with Haddock driven slapstick (including a couple of very nice oversize panels), the story gets back on track when Thompson and Thomson arrive at Tintin's door the next morning to consult him in their investigation into the mysterious illness of one of the seven members of the expedition that brought back Rascar Capac's mummy. Leaving aside the question of why a pair of detectives would consult a journalist who does no journalism, the result of their consultation is that Tintin dismisses it as a mere coincidence until the detectives produce shards of crystal that were found next to the now unconscious explorer. Soon the seven explorers begin to fall one by one, each turning up unconscious with shards of crystal by their side. As quickly as Tintin, Haddock, Thompson, and Thomson can get in touch with the scientists, they turn up unconscious - and when the detectives are improbably assigned to guard one of the men, their blundering predictably results in yet another man in an inexplicable coma lying next to shards of crystal.

At this point the story establishes what will become the pattern for the series: any time anything related to science rears its head from this point on, Professor Calculus will take center stage. In this case, it turns out that Calculus is an old school friend of the last conscious member of the Peruvian expedition, Professor Hercules Tarragon. In short order our heroes visit Tarragon to try to figure out why the other members have all fallen into a perpetual deep sleep. After viewing the mummy of Rascar Capac (which Tarragon keeps in a glass case in his front hall), there is an action sequence involving some ball lightning that gives the book its cover illustration and causes the mummy to vanish. After everyone has bad dreams, Tarragon is stricken with the same malady as his compatriots, complete with shards of crystal, and while everyone is out investigating Calculus finds a golden bracelet that he decides to wear as a lark.

But before too long Calculus goes missing, and the mystery of the unconscious scientists deepens when it turns out they have regular synchronized fits. In short order the story turns into a kidnapping investigation as Tintin and Haddock hunt for the missing Calculus, a hunt that leads them to the docks and a procession of clues that lead to the Pachacamac, a Peruvian freighter that had recently left for South America. And unlike many other investigations conducted by Tintin, this one is interesting because it involves actual investigation, rather than Tintin falling into the hands of his enemies and then foiling them. Hergé's storytelling abilities improve with each volume, as he shows this here by setting up a mystery and having his characters follow a trail of clues that keep the reader guessing and interested, but once revealed, fall into place and make sense. One element that is something of note is that when Tintin and Haddock undertake to find Calculus' kidnappers, they are not assisted or accompanied by Thompson and Thomson, which may account for their success. This being the first half of a two-part story, the book ends on a cliff-hanger with nothing resolved, setting up Prisoners of the Sun. Interestingly, just like The Secret of the Unicorn, which is also the first half of a two-part story, all of the action in The Seven Crystal Balls takes place in Tintin's home country.

Coupling pulp fantasy with a good story heavy on investigation with just the right amount of humor, The Seven Crystal Balls is an excellent first half of a fun and exciting story. Despite the fact that the story is manifestly incomplete in just this volume, this is still an beautiful book with all of the elements one has come to expect from a Tintin story - bumbling silliness from Thompson and Thomson, clueless meandering from Calculus, boisterous excitability from Haddock, as well as some inebriation (and some additional inebriation for Snowy), and of course, through it all is the steady virtue and resourcefulness of Tintin. Intentionally devoid of politics save for the brief condemnation of Western imperialism, the book is almost entirely pure investigation, and is also one of the best books in the series.

Previous book in the series: Red Rackham's Treasure
Subsequent book in the series: Prisoners of the Sun

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Musical Monday - Godzilla by The Doubleclicks

I love the Doubleclicks. Made up of two sisters - Angela and Aubrey Webber - they first caught my attention with the Dungeons & Dragons inspired song This Fantasy World, but they are far from a one song group. In 2011 they did a six month creative stint where they recorded one song a week and released it via YouTube, and in the process produced several funny, sharp, and insightful tunes, including this one about metaphors and Godzilla.

Unfortunately this song, like many other songs that the Doubleclicks put out early in their career, is hard to find. I believe that it may be available on iTunes, but I can't find a link to it on their website. I really hope that these songs aren't relegated to remaining available only via YouTube performances and that someday Angela and Aubrey decide to release a CD filled with all of their early songs so that those of us who fell in love with their music in the early days of their career can spend more of our money.

Previous Musical Monday: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton
Subsequent Musical Monday: Frogger: The Frogger Musical by Paul & Storm

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review - Red Rackham's Treasure by Hergé

Short review: Following the clues found in The Secret of the Unicorn, Tintin and Captain Haddock head off in search of treasure. Professor Calculus invites himself along. Tintin does no reporting.

On a treasure hunt
Sail to a distant island
But the trail leads home

Full review: Following directly on the heels of the hunt for the treasure map in The Secret of the Unicorn (read review), Red Rackham's Treasure details the search for the eponymous trove. While the previous book took place entirely in Tintin's home country (whether one considers that to be Belgium or the United Kingdom), a large portion of this book takes place at sea. Unusually for a Tintin book, there is no real opposition for Tintin and his companions other than the elements themselves. There are no gangsters, no smugglers, no scheming government agents, no corrupt policemen, or any of the usual antagonists that crop up in Tintin's adventures. Despite this, or maybe because of this, Red Rackham's Treasure is one of the most enjoyable books in the Tintin series.

This book is also where the Tintin series really finally becomes the Tintin series. When I first encountered the Adventures of Tintin as a boy living in Tanzania I read them in no particular order, but enough of the books (and most of the ones I found first)  included not only Captain Haddock, but Marlinspike Hall, Nestor, Professor Calculus, and all of the other elements of the series that I took it for granted that these elements were common to all of the Tintin adventures. As a result, when I read books like The Shooting Star, in which none of these elements were present, I was confused and disappointed. This isn't a defect of the series -  obviously when Hergé wrote the earlier books in the series he could not have been expected to incorporate elements he had not yet invented into his stories, but it is an argument in favor of reading the books more or less in order and following the progression of the stories as new characters and elements are added. At the very least, reading them this way would have saved my ten year old brain some cognitive dissonance.

In any event, this is the book where Professor Calculus makes his initial appearance. It is also one of the most blatant examples of Tintin failing at his job as a journalist. After unraveling the clues to where Red Rackham's treasure lies - obtaining latitude and longitude coordinates plus a cryptic reference to the eagle's cross - and helping to organize an expedition to find that same treasure, Tintin sits on the story. Other reporters are not quite so incompetent at their job, and one gets wind of the story and writes an article, resulting in some humor as dozens of claimants show up asserting that they are descended from Red Rackham and should get a portion of the treasure. This leads to Professor Calculus' appearance, and he quickly displays the traits that make him an endearing character: eccentric brilliance coupled with an almost complete inability to hear anything and an unawareness (or unwillingness to admit) to his deafness, resulting in humorous conversations stemming from his wacky misinterpretations of what others have said to him.

Professor Calculus' mission is to offer a one-man submarine he has built to the expedition that looks like a shark (and given that it is pictured on the cover, one can guess how well this works out). Calculus is convinced that a shark shaped submarine is necessary to avoid trouble with sharks, but one has to wonder why the shark shape makes a difference other than to make the submarine look cool. The other preparations made for the voyage seem to paint the expedition as a kind of catch as catch can kind of affair: Tintin and Captain Haddock find their diving gear (which one would think would be fairly critical for finding sunken treasure) by happenstance in a second-hand shop. They can charter the ship Sirius, hire a crew, and lay in supplies, but apparently need to pick up the gear they actually need to find the treasure by chance. One question that also arises is where Tintin and Haddock found the funds for their expedition, since neither is supposed to be wealthy at this point in the series. They don't appear to have any backers for their expedition, nor have they engaged in any publicity that would allow for fundraising. So one is left wondering how they managed to pay for everything.

Even at this early stage, the love-hate relationship between the excitable and boisterous Haddock and the clueless and oblivious Calculus is quickly established as Calculus shows up to make arrangements to deliver his unwanted submarine and Haddock takes it into his own hands to dissuade him. Before too long, the expedition sets out and quickly gains an additional set of crew members as Thompson and Thomson arrive at the last minute with news that Max Bird had been seen near the Sirius and may try his hand at sabotage. This is the one moment that an antagonist is mentioned in the story, but it mostly serves as a red herring to distract the reader from what is really going on. And this is the first indication that this book is mostly about misdirection and subverting expectations. Things begin disappearing from the ship, leading one to believe that Max Bird has found his way on and is causing trouble (or that Snowy is up to his usual mischief), but this turns out to be authorial sleight of hand.

After some mishaps, the Sirius finds the island where Sir Francis spent his years after blowing up the Unicorn and begin their search. Setting ashore, they discover via the native parrots that Captain Haddock's colorful language seems to have been inherited from his illustrious ancestor, and they also find their first artifact in the form of a tribal idol apparently erected in honor of Sir Francis. Heading to sea, they put Calculus' submarine to use as they hunt for the wreck of the Unicorn, raising the question of exactly what they had planned to do if Calculus had not snuck his way on board with his machine. Soon enough they have located the wreck and are recovering items from it, hunting for the treasure. Meanwhile, Calculus, having taken up divining, keeps showing up to say that his divining pendulum indicates that they need to look further to the west. There are plenty of comic moments involving Thompson and Thomson, who had been put to work pumping air for the diving suit, as well as a section in which Haddock finds bottles of wine and (predictably) gets falling down drunk. The underwater search comes up empty, and Tintin thinks he has found the answer and leads everyone back to the island. Finally, out of time, they return home.

And this is where the story transforms from being a fun adventure story, to being something really special. If they had discovered the treasure in a box in the wreck, or buried on some remote island, Red Rackham's Treasure would have been just one more very silly pirate treasure story. Because that would have meant that knowing where the treasure lay, Sir Francis had left it behind, which would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do. But what they did recover from the wreck leads them to Marlinspike, revealing that it was the ancestral estate of the Haddocks. Serendipitously, Marlinspike comes up for auction and at this point, the quirky friendship between Haddock and Calculus raises its head, as Haddock doesn't have the funds to purchase the property because they did not find the treasure (although they did find a gem encrusted cross, and one wonders what happened to the money that would have brought in). Without hesitation, Calculus offers to buy it for him to thank him for allowing Calculus to test his submarine on the voyage, demonstrating that he really does live in a world almost completely detached from reality. But it is a benign world, and as a result Calculus is a lovable character. This sequence also shows that although the expedition seems to have been a failure, it was actually a success because without the foray Calculus would have never been able to assist Haddock's purchase of Marlinspike, and as a result, Red Rackham's treasure would have never been found.

But at the end the twist is that the reader discovers that the entire book has been a masterful piece of misdirection. The earlier misdirection concerning the stowaway aboard the Sirius was just a bit of thematic foreshadowing. The sad part of the Spielberg directed Adventures of Tintin movie is that the sequence that results in finding the lost treasure is included, but all of the misdirection that sets up that moment is left out. As a result, while this moment in the film is funny, it loses most of its impact. Spielberg seems to have understood the books well enough to get the look right, but seems to have missed the story itself. In the end, the reader gets the payoff of the conclusion, and through the rest of the series Haddock will have to adjust to the expectations that come with being a wealthy landowner.

With Red Rackham's Treasure, the Tintin series has finally become the series that has engendered the enduring adoration of fans. The cast of characters is finally complete, each with their own quirks to provide humorous moments and to serve as foils for Tintin. The setting is finally fleshed out enough that Hergé could begin using the recurring characters and locales to provide elements to drive the stories. From this point forward in the series, the internal mythology built up by the previous books will begin to take over the stories as previously seen characters return and previous events have unexpected lasting consequences. But this book doesn't just set up the future of the series, it provides a strong story on its own, with a skillfully set up twist ending and beautifully rendered artwork, including a number of oversize panels. Red Rackham's Treasure is full of undiluted pulp adventure and plenty of comedy while at the same time providing a very satisfying conclusion to the story begun in The Secret of the Unicorn. This book is one of the very best of the Tintin series, and an excellent book overall.

Previous book in the series: The Secret of the Unicorn
Subsequent book in the series: The Seven Crystal Balls

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Follow Friday - Forty-Four Was Reggie Jackson's Number, Stir the Drink

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Pretty in Fiction and Butterfly-o-meter.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get your hands on any particular book?

Hmm, this is a tough one for me, since I haven't ever really done anything crazy to get a book. I did pre-order a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and then go to pick it up at midnight. But I only did that because I was leaving to go on vacation the next day and wouldn't be able to pick up the book until a week later if I didn't.

I suppose one could say that I've done somewhat crazy things for books (as opposed to a single book), mostly by mapping out all the library book sales in my area and spending hours hunting through stacks of used books for the ones I want. And maintaining an Excel spreadsheet a couple hundred pages long to help me do this. But that doesn't seem crazy to me, just organized.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Forty-Three Is the Atomic Number of Technetium

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review - The Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé

Short review: A chance discovery at an open air market starts Tintin and Captain Haddock on the trail of lost treasure. Tintin does no reporting.

A model sea ship
Leads to a lost treasure map
And rival claimants

Full review: The story in The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel Red Rackham's Treasure (read review) is the source from which Spielberg drew the bulk of the material for his movie The Adventures of Tintin, which was a good decision because this is probably the most loved of all the Tintin books, although I am partial to the two part series Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon (read review). In The Secret of the Unicorn the roster of characters for the Tintin series finally takes full shape. The first of three two-part stories, and one of the best storylines of the entire book series, this volume begins the process of fully fleshing out Captain Haddock's character into the sharp edged, often inebriated, somewhat out-of-place patrician that fans of the series have come to know. This is also the story line that introduces the last regular characters of the series: The eccentric (and almost completely deaf) but brilliant Professor Calculus and the indefatigable butler Nestor. With the cast of characters complete, the story weaves together what has now become the standard Tintin versus gangsters story with some family history for Captain Haddock and a mystery pointing towards buried treasure.

The World War II era posed a problem for Hergé. Prior to the conflict in which his native Belgium was invaded and occupied, the Tintin series had begun to incorporate overtly political commentary in its stories, in some cases quite critical of the Axis powers. But with Belgium occupied and Hergé's publisher enduring government oversight, this was no longer possible, and the Tintin stories backed away from this political bent. In the first two books written during the occupation, Hergé moved back to his standard gangster driven plot in The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review) and experimented with outlandish science fiction in The Shooting Star (read review), neither of which produced particularly memorable stories. It wasn't until The Secret of the Unicorn that Hergé hit upon the formula that would work: pulp-style adventures in exotic but non-politically charged locales. The result was this story of pirates and lost treasure, and the following two book story involving Inca mummies and hidden temples found in The Seven Crystal Balls (read review) and Prisoners of the Sun (read review).

The book starts with some comic relief as Tintin runs across Thompson and Thomson while the detectives are in the middle of an investigation into a rash of pick pocketings in the local open air market. But before too long the real story rears its head when Tintin comes across a model ship that he purchases as a gift for Captain Haddock. The model ship draws a lot of interest as two other interested buyers immediately offer to buy the ship from Tintin, offering substantially more than he paid for it. Even after being refused, the ship collector Sakharine pursues Tintin to his apartment to renew his offer. In the Spielberg movie, Sakharine is developed into a sinister figure, but in the books, he is more or less just a minor speed bump in the story that vanishes in fairly short order. As with most Tintin stories, The Secret of the Unicorn is built on a healthy dose of coincidence, and when Captain Haddock sees the model ship, he immediately identifies it as the ship his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock captained several generations before, identifying it in the background of a portrait of Sir Francis that Captain Haddock just happened to have hanging in his apartment.

The plot thickens as Tintin's apartment is broken into and the model ship is stolen. Then when he goes to mistakenly accuse Sakharine of stealing the ship (discovering in the process that Sakharine owns an identical model ship), his apartment is broken into and ransacked again. As an aside, Tintin is clearly a bibliophile, as his primary concern over the ransacking of his apartment appears to be the condition of his books. After some slapstick comedy when Thompson and Thomson stop by to investigate the break-ins, Tintin discovers an old scrap of paper behind a cabinet that apparently fell from the now missing model ship. Deducing that it is a clue to a hidden treasure, Tintin rushes back to Captain Haddock's apartment, and coincidence strikes again to drive the plot forward in the form of an old sea chest belonging to Sir Francis that just happened to be in Captain Haddock's possession - including a hat, cutlass, and most importantly, a journal detailing Sir Francis' exploits against the pirate Red Rackham.

It is this section more than any other that had me convinced the first time I read it that the Tintin series was set in the United Kingdom. The key element is that Sir Francis' ship the Unicorn flies the Union Jack, at least in the English language translation. Perhaps in the original French version the Unicorn hoists the Belgian flag, something that seems more likely given that the book was written during the years that Germany occupied Belgium while at war with the U.K. However, I don't know this for sure (not having a copy of the original French translation), and my twelve year-old self certainly didn't know. This coupled with numerous other small cures (such as Thompson and Thomson's references to Scotland Yard) led me to believe that Tintin, Haddock, and their other companions were British. I don't think it materially changes the story for them to be British or Belgian, but somehow it seems more aesthetically pleasing to me mentally for them to be in the U.K.

In any event, it turns out that Sir Francis had a run-in with the pirate Red Rackham which resulted in the sinking of both of their ships, but not before a hard-fought sword fight between the noble Sir Francis and the treacherous Rackham. During this confrontation, Sir Francis learned of the treasure that Rackham had acquired during his exploits, and after blowing up the Unicorn to keep it from falling into the hands of the pirates, created a series of clues to lead his descendants to the trove. In a substantial departure from the books, the movie The Adventures of Tintin changed the source of the treasure from Rackham's piratical endeavors to a secret cargo being carried by Haddock's ship on behalf of the Crown, which makes Haddock something of a traitor insofar as he failed to turn over the location of the treasure to the proper authorities when he returned home. Claiming pirate booty as one's own is one thing, claiming the contents of the cargo you are carrying for your government as your own is quite another. This whole sequence is told mostly via flashbacks as Haddock recounts the events to Tintin in his apartment (and not in a drink induced frenzy at a Foreign Legion outpost like in the movie), filling in Tintin and the reader on the key elements that make the scrap of paper Tintin found in his apartment meaningful.

But Tintin doesn't have the scrap of paper - the B-plot comes crashing into the A-plot as Tintin discovers his wallet has been stolen by a pickpocket. And then when Tintin takes Haddock to see Sakharine (and see if his model of the Unicorn has a scrap of paper hidden in its mast), they discover Sakharine has been attacked and his model stolen. Obviously someone is also after the treasure, and Tintin and Haddock almost get more clues when one of the gentlemen who had vied for ownership of Tintin's now-stolen model Unicorn at the beginning of the book shows up just in time to be downed by a drive-by shooting. When asked who was behind his shooting, he apparently has enough strength to point to some sparrows and say "there", but not enough to leave a less cryptic clue, like a name. Things begin to look up when Tintin's wallet is recovered (and Tintin has to help Thompson and Thomson with some basic detective work), but then take a turn for the worse when Tintin is chloroformed and kidnapped (as an aside, I have to wonder where the crooks in the Tintin universe get their supplies of chloroform - it seems at times that it is so common that they must be able to pick it up at the corner store).

Through his usual methods of investigation by being captured coupled with a villain who spills the beans at the first opportunity, Tintin foils the villains and solves the mystery. Along the way, there is some adventure and the first appearances of Marlinspike Hall and the long-suffering butler Nestor (who is in the employ of the villains at this point). Captain Haddock arrives with Thompson and Thomson just in time to save the day, and everything turns out okay. We also find out the meaning of the cryptic "sparrow" clue bestowed upon Tintin earlier, and it turns out to be a clue that was so cryptic that it really only makes sense if you already knew the answer. In other words, with what he thought was his dying breath, instead of giving a name, the character in question used that effort to hand out a clue that was certain to be incomprehensible to the recipients. It is also during this sequence that Tintin is once again knocked out by a couple blows to the head, and then displays his amazing punching prowess by slugging a pair of much larger men into unconsciousness.

Although this is only the first half of the story, the volume does come to a reasonable stopping point, wrapping up the portion of the story that relates to hunting for the treasure map quite nicely. Oddly, for a story about looking for lost pirate treasure from a ship that sank in the Caribbean, all of the action in the book takes place in Tintin's home country, making this the first book in the series in which Tintin does not cross any international borders. The other odd thing about the story is how quickly the villains go from antique dealers, to thieves, to attempted murderers - in Hergé's world it seems that once you get into smuggling or larceny that you are perfectly willing to scale up to murder without a second's thought. And your clueless butler will be willing to help you. All three of the two-part stories in the Tintin series are excellent, and represent the best of Hergé's work. Loaded with mystery, action, comedy, and fun, The Secret of the Unicorn is no exception, and is the first half of what I consider to be the second best Tintin story ever made.

Previous book in the series: The Shooting Star
Subsequent book in the series: Red Rackham's Treasure

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review - The Shooting Star by Hergé

Short review: Its a race between a European crew accompanied by Tintin and an American crew financed by unscrupulous villains with a mysterious meteorite as the prize. Tintin does no reporting.

Fiery falling star
Is it the end of the world?
No, just huge spiders

Full review: The Shooting Star is the second of the Tintin books written during World War II, and one of the oddest books in the entire series. It is also one of the most disappointing. Although some minor fantastical elements have cropped up in previous books such as Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review), this is the first book in the series that could credibly be classified as science fiction. Despite his apparent attempts to avoid controversy by making his tale as fantastical as possible, some elements of Hergé's book were seen as appeasement of the occupying forces, helping to place a post-War cloud of suspicion over the artist.

The story of The Shooting Star is unusual for the Tintin series in that it is the first in the series that is not primarily focused on foiling criminal activity, and is instead focused on a mysterious shooting star that appears in the night sky. It is also the first (and one of the few) stories in the series in which Tintin is not knocked out with a blow to the head, chloroformed into unconsciousness, or shot. (Seriously, one has to wonder how Tintin has any skull bone left after the number of knocks he takes to the noggin, and if women think scars are sexy, then he must be a lady-magnet with all the bullet holes in his body). When the night becomes unseasonably warm, Tintin sneaks into the local observatory and finds out that it is a huge fireball headed in a collision course with the Earth. This sequence gives a little foreshadowing as a spider walks across the lens of the telescope Tintin observes the object with, making it appear that the fireball is bearing a huge spider. Tintin is informed by the director of the observatory that the fireball will strike the Earth and destroy the world, sending Tintin home to wait out the remaining hours. The following sequence also reinforces Tintin's apparent resistance to heat, as he is able to walk about outside when the air temperature is high enough to cause car tires to burst, the tar in street pavement to melt, heat the metal of a window frame so much that burns when touched. Tintin's resistance doesn't appear to be all that exceptional though, as everyone else in the world is apparently only slightly inconvenienced by the presumably oven level temperatures.

In a twist that should surprise no one reading the book, the world does not end, and the flaming threat passes by the Earth without striking it, merely causing an earthquake. Rushing through the aftermath the the observatory, Tintin stumbles in just in time for the observatory's director Decimus Phostle to discover, via the use of a spectroscope, a heretofore unknown metal on the passing meteor and name it phostlite. Their elation is short-lived when they learn that the chunk of meteorite that crashed into the Earth (and caused the earthquake) fell into the Arctic Ocean, a fact that causes Phostle to assume that his discovery of phostlite has been swallowed by the sea. Leaving aside the fact that he already has spectroscopic proof of the new metal, it seems odd that it takes Tintin slipping on some bricks that had fallen into the water to figure out that the meteorite fragment might still be sticking up through the water's surface.

Before too long the characters are heading off to find the semi-submerged meteorite and claim the discovery of phostlite for the European Foundation for Scientific Research, racing against a rival commercially funded expedition. And it is at this point in the story that Hergé drew criticism. The expedition Tintin accompanies is organized by and comprised of Europeans, mostly from Axis or Axis-friendly countries, nobly setting out to advance science in the research vessel "Aurora". The rival expedition, organized in pursuit of pure profit and engaged in numerous attempts to sabotage Tintin's compatriots, is based in the Americas (originally the United States), and funded by bankers who, in the original version, had very stereotypical Jewish names. These elements were somewhat toned down in later editions of the book, but enough remains that an astute reader will be able to see what the controversy was about.

With Captain Haddock along to run the ship (and acting as the newly elected president of the Sober Sailor's Society), Tintin, Phostle, and the collection of mostly interchangeable scientists who fill out the expedition's roster head into Arctic waters. After extensive adventures involving overcoming a crazed stowaway, storms, ice, a mysterious fuel shortage in Iceland (a problem solved when Captain Haddock runs across an old friend), and a false distress signal, the Aurora launches its seaplane and Tintin finally parachutes onto the meteorite and plants the E.F.S.R. flag to claim the prize. One thing that seems odd about this race is that it seems to suggest that scientific discoveries are kept from others, and whoever gets to the meteorite first will be able to keep the phostlite for themselves. I suppose in a wartime atmosphere this would be more or less true, but there isn't an indication that there is a war going on in Tintin's fictional reality, making the race for the prize seem more or less pointless.

But it is only when Tintin reaches the meteorite and sets his mind on camping out on it overnight accompanied only by Snowy (to prevent the Americans from claiming it in his absence) that the story gets really weird. First, it seems that Tintin's amazing invulnerability to extreme heat doesn't apply to hot water, as he is scalded when jumping ankle-deep in the water to get his dog. The heat of the water is somewhat odd too, since it is supposed to be heated by the meteorite. But if the water is hot enough to burn Tintin when he steps into it, why is the meteorite itself cool enough to walk around, sit down, and lie down on? Quirky inconsistencies like this seem to me to be an indication that Hergé wasn't yet comfortable writing a story that didn't involve tracking down opium smugglers. While camping on the island, Tintin discovers that the substance it is made of has some truly odd properties - as evidenced by the gigantic mushroom pictured on the cover of the book. Once again, it seems odd that an unknown metal would have the effect of causing plants and insects to grow to enormous size, especially an unknown metal that would have to be on the extreme heavy end of the periodic table (and thus would be highly radioactive and probably deadly to anyone camping on a huge hunk of it). It is this final segment that draws The Shooting Star firmly into the science fiction genre, and almost pulls it all the way into fantasy. It stays just short of fantasy, although it is weird science fiction.

In the end, Tintin scores yet another victory against those who oppose him and once again does no reporting. As a result of Tintin's efforts the E.F.S.R. claims a piece of the mysterious metal, news agencies report their triumph, and it is never mentioned again in any of the Tintin stories. In fact, unlike many other books in the Adventures of Tintin series, no one other than Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy, and no plot elements specific to this book ever crop up again in later installments. This book produced no recurring characters, no recurring villains, no recurring plot devices, and had essentially no lasting impact at all on the series. The only thing that makes this book noteworthy in the series is the introduction of full-blown science fiction elements to the series. The book is even lacking in the full page and half page pieces of artwork that had begun to crop up in the handful of books that immediately preceded it. The Shooting Star is, quite simply, a disappointing book that represents a downturn for the series. That said, it is still Tintin, and still full of humor, intrigue, and adventure, and is, as a result, worth a read.

Previous book in the series: The Crab with the Golden Claws
Subsequent book in the series: The Secret of the Unicorn

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Musical Monday - The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

Inspired by the recent Follow Friday question asking for us to reveal our favorite bands and music, I decided to start posting some songs from artists who scratch my inner science fiction nerd every Monday and call it Musical Monday.

And to start things off, I'm going to go with the man who is probably the reigning king of nerd music - the bearded Jonathan Coulton and the song he uses to open his concerts with: The Future Soon. At first the song seems like nothing more than a tale of a boy who grows up to be a mad scientist who creates a rampaging army of robots who destroy the world. But what the song is really about is that twelve year old nerd, probably a science fiction fan, treated like an oddball by his classmates, sitting in his room imagining how he would like to get revenge on everyone who has treated him like crap.

And listening to the song, you realize that Coulton almost certainly was a nerdy twelve year old who harbored these sorts of dark fantasies, and knows exactly the feelings that the song speaks about. Just like his song Code Monkey rings true because it reflects his experiences as a programmer, this song rings true to every person who was once a kid sitting alone in his room wishing he could replace his body parts with cyborg limbs and make everyone realize what a mistake it was to marginalize and ostracize him. Especially the girl that twelve year old had a huge crush on.

Previous Musical Monday: Main Title - Crusader: No Regret (aka The Traveler)
Subsequent Musical Monday: Godzilla by The Doubleclicks

Jonathan Coulton     Musical Monday     Home

Review - The Crab with the Golden Claws by Hergé

Short review: A meeting with Thompson and Thomson leads Tintin to an opium smuggling ring and Captain Haddock. Tintin does no reporting.

More opium smugglers
But now there's Captain Haddock
A new lifelong friend

Full review: The Crab with the Golden Claws is the first Tintin book that Hergé wrote while Belgium was occupied. Although he had begun writing Land of Black Gold (read review) just before Belgium was invaded and occupied, he shelved that book for the duration of the war and tried to write less "controversial" books. What is noticeable about this and the subsequent five books written during Belgium's occupation is the lack of political themes criticizing the Axis powers, whether the explicit criticism of Japan found in The Blue Lotus (read review), or the implicit criticism of the Third Reich found in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review). It seems as though Hergé deliberately turned away from making any political statement during the occupation years, and instead tried to focus on more fantastical stories. This book is also noteworthy as the first in the series in which Captain Haddock makes his appearance, introducing the character who will become almost as iconic a member of the Tintin books as Tintin himself.

The story starts with a somewhat unusual twist for a Tintin story: rather than stumbling into a mystery and having the villains wildly overreact and try to kill him, Tintin is talking with Thompson and Thomson concerning their most recent investigation into a ring of counterfeiters when he spots a small collection of items in their office that reminds him of a can Snowy had found in the trash earlier that day. It turns out that the object came from a drowned body, and the scrap of paper torn from the can has very faint writing on it. We see a brief scene in which an Asian man inquires after Tintin, and then Tintin figures out that the scrap of paper says "Karaboudjan", the Asian man is abducted when he tries to call on Tintin, and the adventure is underway. And all of these clues are strung together without a single threat to Tintin's life or an attempt by gangsters to warn him off.

This doesn't mean that Tintin is left alone, but at least in this story the gangsters wait until he has at least some information and is actively poking their nose into their business before they try to drop a huge crate of canned sardines on his head. Apparently gangsters can sense the inherent incompetence of the Thompson and Thomson, because when they join Tintin to search the Karaboudjan, the villains leave them alone but whack our hero on the head and tie him up in the ship's hold. This development results in Tintin making two discoveries - the first of which is important to the plot of the book, the second of which is important to the future of the series. First, Tintin discovers that the cans of crab don't hold crab at all, but rather are filled with opium (which Tintin recognizes on sight). Second, while making his escape from the Karaboudjan, Tintin comes across Captain Haddock, at this point a pathetically drunk ship captain kept a virtual prisoner by his evil first mate Allan. But even at this point, with Haddock so looped on whiskey that he stutters when he talks, his fundamental goodness comes through when he learns that his ship is being used to smuggle opium and the smugglers have kidnapped Tintin. He immediately jumps in to offer his inebriated assistance to Tintin, helping him make his escape in a ship's boat.

Once the pair have escaped the Karaboudjan, Haddock quickly establishes what will become a regular pattern for the series: although sobered up, he comes across a bottle of alcohol and even though he knows he should stay sober he decides to have "just one". Before he knows it, Haddock has polished off the whole bottle and then does something destructively stupid that creates a plot complication that Tintin must overcome. Through the series, Haddock is mostly helpful, and it seems like Hergé does understand something about alcoholism, given Haddock's inability to control himself when presented with liquor. However, Haddock's alcoholism is played for laughs - because as has been established in previous books with Snowy, in Hergé's world, getting uncontrollably drunk is funny. And in this book, it is often destructively dangerous.

After some improbable escapades involving an airplane (and I will note that it seems absurdly easy to get hold of an armed civilian airplane in Hergé's fictional reality), Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock wind up on their own in the North African desert with no water and no supplies. (I'll note that the crashed airplane they leave behind should have had a fair amount of water in its radiator, and also that the captured pilots seem to have acquired Tintin's amazing resistance to fire). After some comedy involving mirages, Snowy's love of bones and Haddock's love of spirits, the three are rescued by a Foreign Legion detachment, and soon set out for the coast after hearing that the Karaboudjan had sunk with all hands. This sequence provides the cover for the book, and also provides more alcohol-related humor as Haddock's supply of liquor is shot up throwing him into a frenzy.

Eventually they arrive in the port city of Bagghar, and the coincidences fly thick and fast leading to a resolution of the mystery. Tintin runs across Thompson and Thomson, who have been assigned to track down opium smugglers. They all run across the Karaboudjan, which has been disguised, and Allan, who has not. Eventually their investigations lead them to Omar Ben Salaad, a prominent citizen of Bagghar who they suspect is the ringleader of the opium smugglers. Haddock is kidnapped, and Tintin manages to rescue him, whereupon Haddock clumsily messed everything up, both of them get inebriated, and they still manage to solve the mystery and capture the villains. Although the plot wraps up in a moderately contrived manner, the artwork in the book displays the steady improvement that has been characteristic of the series, with the regular panels regularly punctuated by beautifully rendered full page artwork. In addition, the series continues the tradition of Tintin not actually doing any reporting, despite his job title of "journalist". Despite breaking up yet another international opium smuggling ring, Tintin doesn't appear to file any story, or actually do anything related to his job. I suppose, given that this is the third smuggling ring Tintin has foiled, that perhaps he considers this to be a not particularly newsworthy event.

A decent chunk of this book was used to make part of the plot of the Steven Spielberg movie The Adventures of Tintin, lifting the portions in which Tintin is abducted onto the Karaboudjan, meeting Captain Haddock, and the subsequent adventure leading to the North African desert. Some elements were altered - in the movie the Karaboudjan is not smuggling opium, and Omar Ben Salaad is no longer an opium smuggler but rather a minor potentate who is tangled into the story via a model ship. In a small Easter egg for fans of the books, in the movie, the courtyard of Salaad's palace has a prominently placed fountain with a golden crab decoration. In addition, Haddock's character is slightly changed, making him a little bit less destructively dangerous when drunk and more comically dangerous.

Overall, this book represents both a substantial step forward for the Tintin series, and a sad stagnation. The introduction of Captain Haddock as a foil for Tintin represents an important turning point in the series. No longer does Tintin have to bounce his ideas off of Snowy. No longer do Thompson and Thomson have to fill both the role of Tintin's investigatory collaborators and comic relief. From this point forward, Haddock will become as integral part of the Tintin stories as Tintin and Snowy. On the other hand, the "Tintin foils a smuggling ring" has, by this point, been done to death. For fairly obvious reasons, the political bent that the stories had been taking is conspicuously absent from this volume, with the one exception of the appearance of a bit of appeasement thrown to the Axis powers in the form of the mysterious Asian man who turns out to be a Japanese detective hot on the trail of the opium smugglers - marking a turnaround from the positioning of the Japanese as the ringleaders of the drug trade in The Blue Lotus. Despite the "been there, done that" nature of the story, the introduction of Captain Haddock into the series makes this book a memorable one, and makes it worth reading.

Previous book in the series: King Ottokar's Sceptre
Subsequent book in the series: The Shooting Star

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Follow Friday - Forty-Three Is the Atomic Number of Technetium

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Book Den and Bad Ass Book Reviews.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Many readers/bloggers are also big music fans. Tell us about a few of your favorite bands/singers that we should listen to in 2012.

If you follow my blog at all, it should probably come as no surprise that my musical tastes tend to run to the geeky end of the spectrum. So if you sing about programming, pirates, Star Trek episodes, Dungeons & Dragons, or just the weird guy your former boyfriend kept bringing along on all your dates, then I'm likely to listen to your music. Singing about Wil Wheaton would probably help too.

Jonathan Coulton (accompanied by Paul & Storm)

Paul & Storm (with a bonus appearance by Wil Wheaton)

Five Year Mission

Garfunkel & Oates

The Doubleclicks

Jonathan Coulton with Paul & Storm and Molly Lewis serenading Wil Wheaton

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Review - King Ottokar's Sceptre by Hergé

Short review: Tintin happens upon a plot to dethrone the ruler of Syldavia and becomes a national hero. He does no reporting.

In Syldavia
A gang of traitors conspire
To steal a sceptre

Full review: King Ottokar's Sceptre is the last Tintin adventure originally written and published before World War II and Belgium becoming an occupied country. It is also the last Tintin adventure before the appearance of Tintin's friend Captain Haddock. In some sense, it is the last of the "pure" Tintin books and one of the most political and serious ones as well. Without Haddock and Calculus to provide goofy humor, the only comedic relief in an otherwise fairly tense sorry of royal intrigue is the bumbling duo of Thompson and Thomson, and they are clearly a sideshow in this volume. Because of this, King Ottokar's Sceptre is one of the most adventure oriented and one of the best stand alone volumes in the series.

The book begins blandly enough when Tintin finds an unattended briefcase sitting on a park bench. After checking inside to find the owners' identity, he heads off on a good Samaritan mission to return the valise to its proper owner. This leads him to Professor Hector Alembeck, an expert in the somewhat obscure field of Sigillography, the study of seals, a subject Alembeck finds endlessly fascinating, and which seems to interest Tintin as well. Of particular note, and setting the story into motion, is the seal of King Ottokar IV of Syldavia, a tiny country with an obscure sigillographic history. Alembeck tells Tintin of his intention to travel to Syldavia and study the seals of that country in the near future, but complains that he need a private secretary to assist him when he travels.

The story would have ended there, but the villains continue in the proud tradition of Tintin villains and wildly overreact to Tintin's presence and draw attention to themselves. First by acting suspiciously they lead Tintin to a Syldavian restaurant, leading him to follow even more suspicious activity, and then by trying to warn him off, arousing his interest even further. Eventually this leads Tintin to accepting the position as Alembeck's personal secretary and sends him off to Syldavia. Once again, had the villains simply laid low and hadn't engaged in heavy-handed and clumsy attempts to dissuade Tintin's investigations, their actual plans would have remained hidden and they would have accomplished their ultimate goal. Instead, by trying to warn Tintin off (and eventually kill him), all they did was put our hero on their trail. This leads to a number of cat and mouse situations - a man arranges to meet Tintin to pass information to him, but then shows up knocked out on Tintin's doorstep having lost his memory. A package is delivered to Tintin's house that turns out to be a bomb, leading to a car chase. And so on.

Tintin's suspicions are aroused even further when he is speaking with Alembeck on the phone and hears sounds of a struggle. Rushing to Alembeck's apartment, Tintin finds an undisturbed professor packing his clothes. In any event, Tintin and the putative Alembeck head off on their trip to Syldavia, and this is where Hergé really begins to flex his story telling muscles. To this point the story has been a fairly run-of-the-mill spy story. But now, Hergé shows off his now well-developed world-building abilities, creating an entire fictional Balkan nation with an interesting history and a plausible long-standing rivalry with its neighbor. And he does so in just three pages, including one beautifully drawn full page illustration representing a medieval miniature depicting the fictitious Battle of Zileheroum in which the Syldavians defeated the Turkish troops occupying their country. In these three pages Hergé establishes the background needed for his story and does it in a manner that avoids making the reader think he has just had nothing but the critical elements dumped on his head. There is enough "extra" exposition over and above that strictly necessary to the plot to give the impression that Syldavia is a real place, but not so much more that the book bogs down in a swamp of detailed world-building background.

Having established his setting, Hergé wastes no time getting back to the plot, as Tintin becomes more and more suspicious that the individual he is traveling with is not actually Professor Alembeck. Soon enough, the tables turn and Tintin and Snowy are dumped out of an airborne plane. The sequence that follows established Tintin as (a) incredibly lucky, and (b) incredibly durable, adding to his list of superpowers the ability to survive a fall from an aircraft by landing in a pile of hay. Oddly, despite trying to get Tintin out of the way, the villains waited until they were over Syldavia to dump him out of the plane, which positions Tintin to try to foil their plan. On the other hand, Tintin is hampered by two things that make his task more difficult. First, he has no real direct information about the villains' plans, having come up with a guess based on nothing more than the fact that they were trying to get rid of him and the contents of a travel brochure he read while traveling on a plane. One has to wonder if Tintin is able to tie these ephemeral threads together and deduce the nature of the conspiracy against the Syldavian monarchy why no one in Syldavia has been able to figure this out. Second, it seems like almost everyone Tintin comes across in Syldavia is in on the conspiracy. Local police chiefs, members of the King's personal guard, the official Court photographer, and random people on the street all seem to be conspirators bent on overthrowing the Syldavian monarchy and assisting in a foreign takeover of the country.

So, Tintin manages to overcome the vast pervasive conspiracy that seems to permeate all of Syldavia and make his way to the king (along the way, he meets Bianca Castafiore for the first time in the series, and she regales him with an impromptu performance as they travel together, leading Tintin to note that it is a good thing the car they are riding in has safety glass). Although his path to get to King Muskar XII is difficult, once he does get a chance to talk to him, Tintin has a fairly easy time convincing him that his most trusted adviser is conspiring against him. Because Tintin is the protagonist, he is quickly given access to the heavily guarded Kropow Castle where the royal regalia is located, although not until it is just too late to prevent the theft of the royal sceptre, which happens to be the indispensable symbol of Syldavian royal legitimacy. Oddly, Tintin never mentions his connection to Professor Alembeck (who had been given the run of Kropow Castle already), nor does he mention his suspicions about Alembeck being replaced by a double. It seems like, having served his purpose in getting Tintin started along the path to uncovering the conspiracy, the relationship between the two men is forgotten and each follows an entirely separate path for the rest of the book.

Once Tintin reveals the plot, he and King Muskar are confronted with a locked door mystery in which the sceptre has seemingly disappeared from a heavily guarded room while everyone inside was knocked unconscious. Thompson and Thomson arrive for a little bit of comic relief, but even though they remain clumsy and full of malapropisms, they are no longer stupidly incompetent. Although the bumbling detectives are not able to solve the mystery, they are on the right track until Tintin trumps them with a flash of insight. This leads to a chase after the sceptre that leads through the Syldavian mountains to the Bodurian border. As one would expect, Tintin prevails, and uncovers some rather shocking documents from the thief. Of course, what is rather shocking is that the man Tintin takes them from had the documents at all given that he seems to be little more than a flunky, making the fact that he has detailed plans outlining the entire conspiracy signed by its leader seem somewhat odd. Having recovered the sceptre and the remarkably incriminating documents, Tintin must make his way back to the Syldavian capital Klow, and we learn that in addition to his many other super powers, Tintin is able to pilot a military aircraft that he has presumably never seen before.

In the end, Tintin finds his way back to Klow, and so does the sceptre. Some people have argued that the plot of King Ottokar's Sceptre is a criticism of the Nazi Anschluss that annexed Austria to Germany, and it might be. But if it is, it is a fairly cautious and oblique criticism, as the conspiracy in this story seems to be aimed at imposing a mostly unwelcome invader upon Syldavia as opposed to the much more friendly reception many Austrians gave to joining the Third Reich, although whether the Nazi's were welcomed into Austria by the majority of the populace is a debatable point. No matter whether this story was intended as an allegory or not, what it is is an exciting and well-written adventure with strong world-building and interesting characters. As an aside, I'll note that the edition I own is a post-World War II revised edition, and this is one of the books that went through the most substantial revisions, although not to the story, but rather to the artwork. In the original edition, although Syldavia was supposed to be located in the Balkans, many Syldavian characters wore outfits that would be much more British in style, including the guards at Kropow Castle who were dressed as Beefeaters. Following the war, Hergé went back and redrew many panels to give Syldavia the much more Slavic flavor that it has today, a change that definitely improved the book. This excellent artwork combined with the strong story makes this one of the best Tintin stand-alone books. If you have a reader unfamiliar with The Adventures of Tintin who is interested in giving the series a try, and they aren't a stickler for reading things in their "proper" order, this would be the book I would hand them first.

Previous book in the series: The Black Island
Subsequent book in the series: The Crab with the Golden Claws

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